The Witches (CBR14 #22)

Roald Dahl was one of the authors who dominated my childhood reading which makes sense as he is one of the most celebrated children’s authors of the 20th century. I spent a lot of time deep in a few of his books, seeing bits of myself in his protagonists. But this is my goodbye to him. Dahl was an unrepentant bigot. He was profoundly anti-Semitic, perpetuating harmful tropes and falsehoods for years in his public statements and books. Dahl is also easily read as a misogynistic writer, in large part due to the openly misogynistic theme of The Witches. in this book women are demonized for dressing up, feminizing their appearances, and framed as monsters lurking inside seemingly sweet and complacent disguises. Its lurking right in the book’s blurb: This is about real witches. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies.

So why read this then? Read Harder has a task this year to read an award-winning book from the year you were born and The Witches won the Whitbread Award for Children’s Novel in 1983. The award is now known as the Costa Book Awards and are a set of annual literary awards recognizing English-language books by writers based in Britain and Ireland. The awards are more populist than some of the other major awards, being awarded for both for high literary merit but also for works that are enjoyable reading and whose aim is to convey the enjoyment of reading to the widest possible audience. The awards are separated into six categories: Biography, Children’s Books, First Novel, Novel, Poetry, and Short Story.

The award makes sense to me, in retrospect. The Witches is less about the plot than it is about a feeling: it features Dahl’s signature sense of things being terribly messy, unnatural, and unjust. Dahl has long fallen into the classic tradition of British children’s literature, showing the world as a cold place in which wonderful things like magic and human kindness are rare gems. Dahl’s stories depend upon their hyperbolic portraits of how people live for their fanciful appeal and their ability to speak directly to young children as I had felt spoken to thirty years ago.

Pirate Stew & A Study in Emerald (CBR13 #2-3)

Pirate Stew (2020) – 2 stars

Meet Long John McRon, Ship’s Cook the most unusual babysitter you’ve ever seen. Long John has a whole crew of wild pirates in tow, and—for one boy and his sister—he’s about to transform a perfectly ordinary evening into a riotous adventure beneath a pirate moon. It’s time to make some Pirate Stew.

This should be a fun little tale of pirates, flying ships, doughnut feasts and magical stew but it falls flat. For me, the real problem of this book was Neil Gaiman’s rhyming text. It did nothing to hold my intention, and worst sin of all had me thinking of other options for the couplets. It lacked patterns and had a strange rhythm. I think I know what Gaiman was after (pirates are an unruly bunch after all) but it had me itching to skim. The good news? The illustrations by Chris Riddell are very engaging.

A Study in Emerald (2018) = 3 stars

Drawing from both the Sherlock Holmes canon and the Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos, this Hugo Award-winning supernatural mystery set features a detective and his partner as they try to solve a horrific murder. A Study in Emerald draws readers through the complex investigation of the Baker Street investigators from the slums of Whitechapel all the way to the Queen’s Palace as they attempt to find the answers to this bizarre murder of cosmic horror. There are carefully revealed details as the consulting detective and his (unnamed) narrator friend solve the mystery of a murdered German noble.

This graphic novel is aimed to fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft as they are the creators of the source material. This work takes the two worlds and smashes them together, to accomplished but bland effect. Not the fault of the illustrators, who are able to capture the atmosphere of the story in artwork I quite enjoyed, and in the theme of my review of these two Gaiman penned works, the art outpaced the story.

Gaiman does a great job of imitating Doyle’s style, but basically reuses the plot points and details as A Study in Scarlet without much original work. The unnamed narrator’s back story is exactly like Watson’s and is introduced in the same way, some of the major plot points are the same. It falls short on the retelling metric: what’s the point of doing a re-telling if you’re telling the exact same story in very similar words with minor additions from a second body of works. Until the ending, then there’s a switcheroo against expectations and in retrospect you get the retelling component.  It has merit, but it did not work for me.

Click, Clack, Moo (CBR12 #24)

Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin | Scholastic

In my time with CBR I have reviewed very few children’s books. Mostly its because I don’t have many kids to read to so my exposure to and enjoyment of children’s books is limited. But I do have a wonderful coworker who read Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type to her own kids a few years ago. When we were having lunch together shortly thereafter she told me about it and when I expressed delight at its conceit she bought me my own copy for my birthday, and that is how I, a childless woman in her mid-thirties came to receive Doreen Cronin’s book.

Friends, I do love this book. So, for International Children’s Book Day (April 2, 2020) I’m treating myself to a review of it. In these beautiful watercolor pages is the story of farm animals in revolt! The cows have found a typewriter and use it all day. Farmer Brown is a tidbit annoyed at it but doesn’t mind too much. That is until the girls start to use their typewriter skills to make demands. When their demands aren’t met, they go on strike. Eventually their sister chickens join them. Farmer Brown has to figure out what to do about the strike, and sends his offer with an intermediary duck, who has plans of its own.

There is something about cows on strike and using typewriters of all things to communicate that just makes me laugh. The artwork of the book, done by Betsy Lewin, is beautiful. I can heartily suggest this to any children’s book reader out there. If you want to experience me reading the book, perhaps you want to make your way over to the Cannonball Facebook group on April 2nd.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (Ready-to-Read Series: Level 2 ...

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (CBR11 #6)

Until a few years ago I didn’t know that this book from 1942 existed, and once I did, I still didn’t quite grasp where it was set, which little red lighthouse and great gray bridge it was talking about. How silly I felt when I was flipping through this one after a long day to discover that it is set along the Hudson River and the great gray bridge is the George Washington bridge which I drive over several times a year.

In some ways this is just another children’s book about knowing your place, and that being little doesn’t mean that you don’t have value and worth in a world dominated by those that are “great”. But as I dug in a little deeper it’s the story of life on the river a century ago. Even deeper than that, it is a story of a love affair with an inanimate object. In some ways, this book saved its titular little red lighthouse. This children’s book is part in a great tale of historic preservation, a cause near and dear to my heart.

The lighthouse started its life on New Jersey’s Sandy Hook in 1880, guiding ships into New York Harbor. But by 1917 it had become obsolete and was dismantled and put in storage. Four years later, it was reassembled on Manhattan’s Washington Heights. The relocated lighthouse, renamed Jeffrey’s Hook Light, stood forty feet tall, and was the only lighthouse on the island of Manhattan. The George Washington Bridge was built to tower over it in 1931 and its bright lights rendered the lighthouse obsolete once more. It had already captured the hearts and imagination of the community and in 1942 Hildegarde Swift wrote The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge telling the tale of the landmark. In 1951, after decommissioning the lighthouse, the U.S. Coast Guard moved to dismantle it and auction off the parts, but a public outcry bubbled up. The USCG then gave the property to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1979, it was inducted into the National Register of Historic Parks, and in 1982 $1.4 million was raised to restore the lighthouse and Fort Washington Park.

The other neat feature of this book are the illustrations by Lynd Ward, godfather of the graphic novel. He is most famous for his woodcuts (which I don’t think the illustrations in this book are, but I might be quite wrong) and his six “wordless novels”. There’s an award given each year by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book in his name for excellence in graphic novels and the 2018 winner was My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

All-of-a-Kind Family (CBR10 #48)

Image result for all of a kind family

I have no recollection of how All-of-a-Kind Family arrived on my shelves. There’s no inscription in the front, no library book sale note, I didn’t write my name in it so I can’t do handwriting sleuthing. All I know is that I read this book over, and over, and over again in my youth and the book shows my care and use. Still, probably 20 years since the last time I read it, I know the story backwards and forwards and the lilting nature of Sydney Taylor’s writing came immediately back to my mind’s eye.

The book was first published in 1951, but the edition I have is from 1989. This book kicks off a series, and in it Sydney Taylor introduces us to a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1912 – with five daughters ranging in age from 12 to 4. The book follows the five girls, Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie through a year in their life We are treated to things small, such as searching for hidden buttons while dusting the front parlor, or childhood traumas of lost library books and being quarantined and not allowed to see your friends so you don’t give them scarlet fever.  The book also doesn’t shy away from the family’s faith, and  is a primer on how to celebrate the Sabbath, Purim, Passover, and Sukkoth. Fast forward to my thirties when I’m the only non-Jewish person at my job who knows that Sukkoth (Succos) is the thanksgiving for the harvest lasting nine days and generally falling at the end of September after the heavy hitters of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

This re-read had me interested in the author, so I did a little digging. As I suspected, this book is a version of the author’s own childhood. She became a writer by jotting down notes about the stories she would tell her daughter of her own life, following her career as a secretary, then working with the Lenox Hill Players theater group, and dancing with the Martha Graham Dance Company. After Sydney Taylor passed in 1978 the Sydney Taylor Book Award was created in her honor and is given each year by the Jewish Association of Libraries to a book for young people that authentically portray the Jewish experience.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guideline), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (CBR9 #21)

*Note: These reviews were completed in 2017 before the author’s hateful views towards our trans siblings was widely known. My reading experience was what it was and these reviews will remain up, but it should be noted that I find her TERF values abhorrent and will no longer be supporting her through further readings or reviews. 

Friends, I finally remembered what initially began the itch to reread Harry Potter. Cannonball Read’s very own narfna, along with some friends, did a Medicinal Re-Read and I remember following along (thanks, Goodreads)! It’s been since 2013! Okay, as you were, let’s get to the actual reviewing.

Image result for chamber of secrets book

I have always thought book four, Goblet of Fire was my least favorite Potter, and that may still be true for the book versions (we’ll have to see when I get there in a few weeks), but I was resoundingly underwhelmed this go-round with The Chamber of Secrets and the movie left much to be desired.

Chamber of Secrets follows the same basic trajectory of its predecessor. First, Harry has trouble with the Dursleys, then he gets to school with some trouble (much bigger trouble this time), something strange is happening at Hogwarts (blood on the walls and petrified people and ghosts), Harry along with Ron and Hermione are in a unique position to solve the strange happening, Quidditch, House Cup.


This is not the book’s weakness, really. It is how these pieces come together and how Rowling uses Ginny Weasley as a blank slate that bothered me. I forgot how little of her own character Ginny gets in these first two books and how very little in this book considering she has such a major role in the work of the big bad. I am looking forward to badass Ginny who gets here in later books.

The Chamber of Secrets, for all of my vague disgruntledness, is a story about abilities versus choices, which Dumbledore makes clear in the end. This is an important lesson for all of us. I think the movie adaptation misses the point (and I am glad that we are done with Christopher Columbus adaptations after this) by focusing on the violence of the basilisk. Book Harry is more concerned with the possibility that he should have been Slytherin, and that he could go bad. We are with him through these mental gymnastics and there are few among us who haven’t looked back and thought did I make the wrong choice? Did I use my influence (asking the sorting hat to make us Gryffindor) in the wrong way? Is it all doomed to come apart? Harry is nervous, and scared, when Ron points out that it’s not good even in the wizarding world to hear voices (which is a line that the movies gave to Hermione… just grrr. Ron deserves his moments of ability.)

However, layered onto that is a moral lesson in how we interact with others. I prefer the book’s version of the Weasley/ Malfoy feud, since not only is more fleshed out but it informs the larger story in a more concrete way. While the diary plot plays out in the movie as it does in the book, we get much less of the tension between these two wizarding families, and that is a shame. Rowling is setting up her larger theme with them; on one side, we have the Weasleys who are an open, loving, and inquisitive bunch. Highly loyal and believe in fairness. On the other side are the Malfoys, who are not those things.   As this is a children’s book, Rowling takes the themes that she would explore in any book (and certainly does later in her other adult novels) and breaks them into pieces her younger readers can understand.

In order to do that, she introduces the ways these characters treat people who are not exactly like them. Draco Malfoy’s use of the Mudblood epithet and Ron Weasley’s reaction to it, so much stronger in the book, are perhaps the linchpin between these two worldviews. It also informs the danger of the Chamber of Secrets and the Heir of Slytherin, and shows its readers that every little bit of prejudice can support a larger evil.  This is not to say that Rowling makes the Weasleys perfect. Fred and George join in on the teasing of Harry about being the Heir of Slytherin even though it hurts him, and could support others views of him as a possible suspect. Don’t get me wrong, I love the twins, and was very sad to see so much of their arc hit the cutting room floor in the adaptation, but it is another important lesson to the reader: even those we trust and love the most can hurt and betray us and if that is you, it is important to make it right and apologize.

Once again knowledge, and asking for help when you need it, are crucial to solving the great dilemma. I was struck by the way Gilderoy Lockhart is framed as a know nothing, and how he is the weakest of the wizards present because he does not invest in actually knowing what to do. Through these methods Rowling creates the third of our baddies, in addition to Tom Riddle and Lucius Malfoy. When I read this book the first time I was finishing up a grueling program, and headed off to college. I was affected then as I am now that knowledge can be your best armor against the forces of darkness.

This book is full of future world building, from Hagrid’s trip to Azkaban (sob!) and the introduction of Cornelius Fudge. The work Rowling put in shows. I’ll be embarking on The Prisoner of Azkaban shortly.

“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.”

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Graveyard Book (CBR9 #19)

Image result for the graveyard book full cast

I’m slowly working my way through Neil Gaiman’s works. I’ve tackled Neverwhere, American Gods, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (favorite), and his short story collections The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, and M is for Magic. Each has been its own experience, and all generally favorable.

As I go on, I find that the full cast audios are my favorite way to experience Gaiman’s world. I listened to American Gods, and later went back and read Neverwhere after listening to the BBC Radio Drama version (which I preferred). I’ve also listened as opposed to reading the short story collections. Therefore, when I had the audible credit just lying around collecting dust I splurged on another full cast version – The Graveyard Book.

I was familiar with the concept of the book, a chapter of this book appeared in M is for Magic, and crystalclear had already read it (she has read a lot of Gaiman), and the best part about getting your friends to Cannonball is that you get built in suggestions. With no other preparation I jumped into the story of Nobody Owens, the boy who is adopted by ghosts after his family is murdered and raised in a graveyard.

Initially, it felt as though Gaiman was just playing with a storytelling idea: what would happen to a child raised in the quiet and solemnity of a graveyard? Why would a child end up there (the need for the Big Bad)? As the chapters progress we check in with Bod every few years and Gaiman layers in and introduces his signature playing on words (jack of all trades), and builds out Bod’s world, his family, how life progresses, and growing from young lad to young man set out into the world. This journey carried me along and never overstayed its welcome, but left me a tad bittersweet when it all came to an end.

I’d like to see more of Silas, Bod’s guardian, and learn his tale. Or the lady on the grey. Maybe someday Gaiman will come back to those threads and unspool them a bit more. For now, I am satisfied. And supremely happy that the Hempstead witch in this book is related to the Hempstead of Ocean at the End of the Lane.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Fun with Kirk and Spock (CBR8 #68)

Image result for fun with kirk and spock

This book would probably make a nice gift for the Trekkie in your life, so if you are the kind of person who starts their holiday shopping already and are in need of fun gift to add to the pile, then go on ahead and get some of these for yourself.  I am not a huge Star Trek fan – a feel like that is a needed reminder of why I’m ranking this three stars – but I did genuinely enjoy my reading experience but it wasn’t at a proselytizing level. For that, please see crystalclear’s awesome review.  I had a couple of out-loud belly-laugh moments, but it was mostly just smiles of thoughts of oh, that’s clever, and general appreciation of the familiarity.

This is a book with a joke in its heart and a loving knowledge of all the camp of the original Star Trek. A parody of the Fun with Dick and Jane children’s books of the 1950s, Robb Pearlman pairs it with a pop culture classic of the 1960s and away we go on an adventure where we learn important things, such as not getting attached to the red shirts since they won’t be beamed back up (but we should remember them fondly) and that Khan is not a morning person (it explains so much!).

The humor here is simultaneously on the nose and subtle, but I feel that the art deserves a shout-out as Pearlman really captures the actors who originated these characters and it adds a lovely warm layer of nostalgia to the experience.

Recommended for the children’s book/Star Trek lover in your life.

Read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.